The Surreal Life

For a movement that set out to change the world, surrealism
seems at first glance to have left a pretty paltry legacy: Salvador
Dal?’s melted watches, Rene Magritte’s little men in bowler hats,
and an adjective — surreal — that’s been abused almost as often
as ironic. Yet appearances may be (appropriately) deceiving.
Surrealistic currents, coursing through our media culture,
transform much of what we see and how we see it. In fact, we may
all be surrealists without knowing it.

In the early 1920s, poet Andre Breton and a handful of
like-minded poets and artists in Paris read Freud and the more
psychically extreme writers of the past, from the marquis de Sade
to the German romantics. They experimented with what Breton called
‘pure psychic automatism,’ which was most often exercised in the
form of ‘automatic writing’ — rapid, uncensored outpourings on the
page. They became convinced that the innovative, creative power
that had previously been thought of as the province of artists
alone lay latent in all human minds.

Unlike earlier artistic isms, which were driven by the search
for new forms, surrealism asserted that form mattered little; what
was important was tapping the power of everyone’s unconscious and
sparking a revolution both psychic and political. (The surrealists
even established an uneasy alliance with the Communist Party. It
didn’t last.)

Surrealist activity would spread worldwide and take a
bewildering variety of forms: the crystalline poetry of Paul
Eluard; Louis Aragon’s melding of prose documentary and
dream-vision; Max Ernst’s frottages (made by rubbing chalk
on a piece of paper that had been laid over a piece of wood or
another grainy surface); the Czech Jindrich Styrsky’s moody,
disturbing photo collages. The one quality that nearly all
surrealist art shared was reveling in odd juxtapositions — visual
and verbal non sequiturs that created a sense that ordinary life
and dream are two sides of one thin coin. Breton became convinced
that daily life itself could be experienced surrealistically; he
made forays into the Paris flea markets, enjoying the rich
strangeness of the place and searching for the ‘most surreal

Today, a hardy band of artists in Chicago, led by Franklin
Rosemont, keep surrealism alive as both an artistic and a political
movement. Other groups, from Serbia to Argentina, claim the legacy
formally or informally; American artist J. Karl Bogartte’s Web site
has links to many of them
The work of Boulder-based writer Rikki Ducornet recalls the stories
of surrealist foremothers like Leonora Carrington. Among younger
artists, the playwright Lisa D’Amour and the Oakland-based
alternative rapper Doseone handle language with a sense of
dreamlike flow and unpredictable juxtaposition that are purely
surrealist in spirit.

‘I like to use the unexpected to jolt audiences into an
awareness that their everyday lives don’t necessarily make logical
sense,’ says D’Amour, an admirer of Breton whose latest play ‘ends
with people pulling flowers out of each other’s eyes.’

But the real impact of surrealism on our culture is both broader
and deeper. Eric Lorberer, editor of the surrealist-friendly
literary review Rain Taxi, points out that ‘it’s been said
that there’s more surrealism in 15 minutes of MTV than in the last
20 years of the art world. We have absorbed so much surrealism,
almost without realizing it, in our advertising and our media
culture that it’s hard to think outside of it.’

For Lorberer, we mostly experience surrealism in its descendant,
postmodernism, a steady flow of incongruous, often disconnected
images from many times and places. We flip from the History Channel
to CNN to ads that Dal? might have created; the Internet takes us
on an even wilder ride around the world and from psyche to psyche.
Our daily lives are full of encounters with people from different
cultures and other surprises of a thousand kinds. Although
sophisticated artists can make postmodernism meaningful, for many
of us it’s a psychic overload from which we seek relief in
everything from simplicity circles to suburban ‘safety.’ But we may
tune out too much. ‘The problem,’ Lorberer says, ‘is that we are
likely to put blinders on and just sit in our cubicles, hiding from
the marvelous in our lives.’

What if we went the other way and reclaimed our own experience
in a surrealist spirit? If advertising and music videos have
trained us to appreciate a surreal flow of discontinuities, then we
ought to be able to enjoy them, creatively and intentionally, in
our own lives: the Arabic we hear at the corner store, the anime
comics in the bookstore rack, the bizarre profusion of the
supermarket, mixed with our dreams and fantasies. A transition from
being overwhelmed ‘consumers of images’ to empowered artists of the
everyday could begin with a shift of attitude from postmodern
prostration to surrealist elation.

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